Can Genocide be seen as a historical human practice?


The question of genocide is a problem to contemporary historians, for it is hard to suggest whether genocide, under the terms of the U.N. Convention, was a part of history before the early episodes of the Twentieth Century.  Obvious examples of genocide are littered throughout the past century; The Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide, the Armenian Genocide all being key examples, yet can we discuss events such as Julius Caesar’s subjugation of Gaul and the treatment of Native American populations along the same lines?  This is the problem that will be discussed and answered within this essay by comparing and contrasting events and discussing the reasoning for genocide.   The terms of the U.N Convention on Genocide state that: ‘genocide means…acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group’, which is the basis on which acts discussed can be constituted as genocide or not. 

In the opening discussion on the origins of Genocide in Adam Jones’ book, he quotes King Agamemnon discussing his intent of the total destruction of the Trojan people.  Whether myth or not, Homer was writing the Iliad in about the ninth century BCE, and the quote from Agamemnon shows at least the basics of Genocide were in human thought at least twenty nine centuries before the events of the twentieth century.  This is a good starting point for this discussion of the history of genocide as it is an example of pre-modern thinking toward the intentional destruction of a particular group of people.  This proves that genocide, in all but name, has constituted a part of warfare and human settlement for thousands of years.  Yet the extent to which this type of persecution has changed is to be discussed, as the methods and reasoning for genocide have changed with time.  Many of the genocides of the twentieth century were based on the idea of race and ethnicity, and the reasoning for genocide earlier in history needs to be discussed to discover whether there has been a significant change in terms of genocidal thought. 

In antiquity there are various events that could be looked at in this discussion, but the Athenian massacre of Melos during the Peloponnesian war and the campaigns of Caesar in Gaul are by far the best examples of what can be deemed genocide.  During the Second Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 BCE), the island of Melos had remained neutral and neither a part of the Delian nor Peloponnesian League.  The Dorian heritage of the island despite its neutrality brought it into the Spartan hegemony and away from the Ionian Athenians, resulting in a repelled Athenian attack during 426BCE.  The Athenian invasion and slaughter of Melos in 416 BCE is described by Thucydides in his history of the Peloponnesian War and is perhaps the earliest documented genocidal event.  A. B. Bosworth states that ‘Athens’ actions fall squarely within the terms of Article 2 of the Genocide Convention, in that they were intended to destroy a national group (as the Melian city-state could be defined) “in whole or in part,” and they were largely successful in achieving that end’and he is very much right to state so.  Donald Kagan describes that ‘The Athenians voted to kill all the men and to sell their women and children into slavery’, and this order by the Athenian Assembly to commit the act if surrender of Island were not obtained, is evidence of a planned attempt to destroy the Melian people.  The policy to conquer a city state sympathetic of the Peloponnesian league and to then destroy its population is an example of genocide towards a national group, and to a lesser extent an ethnic group (the Dorian peoples).  Although nowhere near the scale of genocides of the modern period, the destruction of Melos is undoubtedly an example of genocide in the classical period and an example of ethnically motivated persecution. 

Another key example of the idea of genocide being ingrained in human history is in the campaigns of Julius Caesar in Gaul during the middle of the first century BCE.  Plutarch claims that in his subjugation of Gaul, Caesar killed one million Gallic inhabitants and enslaved another million.  Of course, the difficulty with ancient contemporary sources is that generally numbers tend to be exaggerated, and it is highly unlikely that the figure of one million is an accurate one.  Plutarch was also writing over one hundred years after the event took place, and a main source of his information would have been Julius Caesars own work on the Gallic wars.  Both the problem of Plutarch relying on Caesars own word and no first hand evidence is that figures and facts can be altered to enhance the glory of Caesar.  Despite this though, it is unquestionable that the campaigns in Gaul led to high numbers of genocidal acts such as the slaughter of the population of Avaricum.  The Gallic campaigns were set off by the migration of the Helvetii people into Roman lands, and the showdown between Caesar and the Helvetii, if his own reports are to be deemed true, is an example of the genocidal brutality of the campaigns.  Caesar states in his ‘Gallic Wars’ that of the 368,000 Helvetii, , only 110,000 returned after the campaign, and although these numbers are most likely propagandists, it is certain that a large portion of women and children were slaughtered alongside the males of battle age.  There is a key question that must be posed on the other hand as to whether the acts of the Gallic wars were genocidal: were the killings intentional to destroy, in whole or in part, the Gallic peoples as a group?  The answer to this question is a tricky one, for the destruction of the Gallic peoples as a whole, was not the focus behind the killing generally, for it was the intention to pacify the peoples and bring them under Roman control that brought about the persecution.  Even this reasoning is no basis to deny genocide, for the destruction of the Helvetii and the sacking of Avaricum are obvious examples of an intentional policy to destroy those groups of people.  It is therefore accurate to view these acts as a form of ancient genocide.

With the examples of Melos and Gaul, it is hard therefore to deny the existence of genocide in the classical era, and therefore weight is given to the idea of genocide being a long standing human condition.  A key aspect of this type of persecution in this period is the relationship with war, and the settling or replacement of populations through mass slaughter and destruction of national identity and members of certain ethnic groups.  This differs slightly from the modern version of genocide, yet there are key similarities in the idea of ethnic origin and national identity as basis for persecution.  The theme of genocide through war is a key aspect of these early types of genocide, and it is not the last time that this idea is seen in history.

Moving on one and a half millennia, the campaigns of Hernán Cortés in Hispaniola and Mexico are another example of an intentional campaign to destroy a particular group of people.  In the landing at Hispaniola Bartolomé de las Casas writes that the Spanish ‘forced their way into native settlements, slaughtering everyone they found there’and estimates reckon that the native population of Hispaniola fell from around 8 million at the time of Columbus’ landing to approximately 20000 inhabitants thirty years later.  Those who had survived slaughter at the hands of the Spanish were enslaved and males were worked to death in gold mines whilst women became agricultural labourers.  The treatment of Hispaniola’s native population is similar to that of the mainland natives.  The taking of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán involved the destruction of Aztec culture and architecture alongside the slaughter and enslavement of the entire population.  David E. Stannard describes the death rate as ‘About a third of a million people’, whilst Ward Churchill takes the death rate to be ‘perhaps two-thirds of Tenochtitlán’s population of about 350,000’.  Either figure leaves no question as to the devastation caused by the Spanish attack, for this was only the starting point for more to come against the Central American peoples, and further attacks by Spaniards such as Pedro de Alvarado continue the theme of genocide towards the native populations.  Bartolomé de Las Casas writes that ‘He [Alvarado] and his brothers…have killed more than four or five million people in fifteen or sixteen years’.  This account is a firsthand account from a Christian missionary who experienced the conquest of the Americas with Cortés, and there is no reason to doubt the figures stated as it is obvious Las Casas had sympathy for the natives, and felt that his fellow Spaniards were brutal beyond belief.  Adam Jones has tried to describe the introduction of European disease to the America’s as a form of biological warfare, but this is highly implausible due to there being no way that carrying disease to the natives was an intentional part of the Spanish conquest, therefore not bringing the numbers killed through disease into the already high figures intentionally killed by the Spanish.  The fact that the natives were viewed as heathen is perhaps the main reason for the brutal treatment of the Spanish towards them, and the harsh conditions placed upon those unlucky enough to have been taken into slavery bear witness to the inferior position given to them.  There is no doubting the fact that the conquest of Central and South America led to genocide of before unseen numbers of people due to their religious and cultural differences to the Conquistadors. 

To move north into North America and the settling by white Europeans leads to a similar death rate among the North American populace.  Thornton states that ‘the single most important factor in [North] American Indian population decline’ was disease, and this theme seems to be true of general population decline, yet the treatment of the North American Indians doesn’t avoid the genocide stigma.  Jones argues that the over-hunting of animal populations and ‘deliberate destruction of flora and fauna that… [Were] used for food’ by the Indians constitutes genocide.  If the destruction of these populations was in fact intentional, then it is unquestionably true, yet there is no proof that this was intentional.  There are many examples of human destruction of other specie populations that happened without intention to destroy another human group, and without sufficient evidence, this aim cannot be attributed to the European settlers.

There are instances of brutality towards the native population however which can be viewed as instances of genocide.  The theme of genocide through war crops up again here, with key examples such as the Pequot War (1636-37) where hundreds of natives were massacred in response to Indian raids.   White migration westwards forced many natives to migrate further west or be caught up in raids and attacks from the white settlers.  A key problem facing the natives was the United States acquisition of California.  During the period of Spanish colonial rule, the population of had fallen by 75 percent from the pre-colonial period, and the 25 years of American rule from 1846 caused a further 80 percent decrease in native population due to the expanding effects of the Californian gold rush.  The rise to prominence of colonial miners and ranch owners led to legislation legalising the enslavement of native Indians during the latter years of the 1840’s, and campaigns to exterminate and enslave the native population continued to gain acceptance despite the State of California becoming a Free State of the United States during the 1850’s.  Indians were also prohibited from testifying against whites so were unable to take slavers to court when attempts were made to enslave Indian children and murder their parents.  The process of native destruction is emphasised by the destruction of all but one person of the Yahi Indians in 1868, described by Theodora Kroeber, where they were murdered and scalped.  It is evident that the discrimination faced by natives was to an extent as to render them extinct as a people without governmental sanctioning of the campaign. 

Stannard overall suggests that the total number killed in what he calls the ‘Euro-American genocidal war’ to be approximately 100 million people, but the problem with his figure is that he has incorporated the effects of European brutality alongside those Indians killed by disease, whilst also not citing demographic figures to support his claim.  It is therefore hard to come up with an overall figure for intentionally caused death by European peoples, but it unquestionably obvious that the European settlement of the Americas was in many cases intent on the destruction of natives for European gain.  The question on whether the colonisation of the Americas constitutes genocide is still an open debate, and for many it is a hard topic to face.  Yet in light of the evidence, the destruction of a vast proportion of the Native American population points towards an intentional program of replacement by any means in European conquest, and withdrawing the numbers killed by disease, the large numbers killed intentionally by Europeans in massacres are genocidal.

The examples given are useful in viewing the history of genocide, and show that Raphael Lemkin defined something that has played a huge part in history when terming the word Genocide.  The act of genocide itself is quite obviously not a new idea, nor has it only become a part of life in the twentieth century, but the ways in which it is undergone has advanced along with technology.  As we can see in the twentieth century, genocide took on a systematic advanced slaughtering of people, from using gas to kill large numbers in a short space of time (such as during the Jewish Holocaust in Europe and the Anfal campaign against the Kurds in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq) to the use of media technology to extend efforts to encourage ordinary people to kill, such as in 1970s Burundi and post-colonial Rwanda.  Earlier forms of genocide have taken the ‘genocide through war approach’, with the idea of destroying national, ethnic, racial or religious groups to enhance conquest and military advantage by removing those deemed as threats.  The Idea of race comes into focus in the conquests of the America’s, and the basis of racial genocide formed during the period were used throughout the twentieth century.  One must only look at the death marches of the Armenian Genocide to see similarities with the death marches of natives in the America’s, and similar efforts from past campaigns were recycled during the various events of the twentieth century.  Modern genocide is a form of persecution that has evolved from the basic ideas of slaughtering inhabitants of a rival city state, to the sophisticated planned destruction of whole ethnic and racial groups.  The historical persecution has evolved into a new form, and the word genocide is perhaps not a strong enough description of modern instances of this type of persecution. 



Primary sources


Julius Caesar, ‘The Conquest of Gaul’,(London; Penguin Books, 1982)

Thucydides, translated by Martin Hammond, ‘The Peloponnesian War’, (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 2009)

Gaius Seutonius Tranquillus, ‘The Twelve Caesars’, (London; Penguin Books, 1979)

Bartholomé de Las Casas, translated by Nigel Griffin, ‘A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies’, (London; Penguin Books, 1992)

Plutarch, translated by Robin Waterfield, ‘Roman Lives’, (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 1999)

United Nations, ‘Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide’, New York, 9 December 1948,




Ward Churchill, ‘A Little Matter of Genocide; Holocaust and Denial in the Americas, 1492 to the Present’, (San Francisco; City Light Books, 1997)

Robin Lane Fox, ‘The Classical World: An Epic History of Greece and Rome’, (London; Penguin Books, 2006)

Adam Jones, ‘Genocide; A Comprehensive Introduction’, (New York; Routledge, 2006)

Donald Kagan, ‘The Peloponnesian War’, (London; Harper Perennial, 2005)

Theodora Kroeber, ’Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America’, (Berkeley; University of California Press, 1961)

David E. Stannard, ‘The Conquest of the New World; American Holocaust’, (New York; Oxford University Press, 1993)

Russell Thornton, ‘American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History since 1492’, (Norman, Oklahoma; University of Oklahoma Press, 1987)


Bosworth, A. B. (1993). “The Humanitarian Aspect of the Melian Dialogue.” Journal of Hellenic Studies


Guenter Lewy, ‘Were American Indians the Victims of Genocide?’, History News Network, (08/02/10)